Eating alligator in New Orleans will help save the wetlands of Louisiana.
On 12 January 2018, Mic.com published an article under the headline “Eating Alligator in New Orleans Could Help Save the Wetlands of Louisiana.” The story presented the testimony of Nathan Richard, a Louisiana alligator chef and hunter, who argued that — because alligators are allegedly overpopulated and destroying the Louisiana wetlands — eating them could be an ecological and environmental boon:
“The American alligator has been so protected, it’s now over-populated,” said Nathan Richard, the executive chef of Cavan in New Orleans. […] For Richard, normalizing this protein on menus again is essential to protecting the Louisiana wetlands. “Too many alligators means too many fish and turtles being killed,” he said.
“This overpopulation also means a physical destruction of the marshes and the destruction of fishing traps and bait,” said Richard. “That’s a problem for the commercial fishermen. Our wetlands and marshes are our first line of defense against hurricanes, and without them, the flooding will become even more extreme.”
The problem with these statements, however, is that they are largely unsupported by scientific evidence. Adam Rosenblatt, a Professor of Ecology and the University of North Florida who studies apex predators in general (and alligators specifically) highlighted a number of factual errors and questionable assumptions in a tweet thread:
1. This article claiming that #alligators are responsible for destroying Louisiana’s wetlands came out a few days ago. It gets most of the facts wrong and makes a lot of assumptions. Allow me to demonstrate: THREAD https://t.co/JwBYGA9u8v
— Adam Rosenblatt (@aroseadam) January 18, 2018
After the publication of our article, Mic issued a correction to their story and altered it to largely remove the focus from the purported ecological benefits of Alligator hunting, noting that biologists do not consider the alligator to be overpopulated.
The first problem with the premise presented in the original article was the claim that Louisiana is overpopulated by alligators. Scientifically speaking, overpopulation is a specific term that refers to a population of organisms that exceeds the resources (called carrying capacity) inherent to its ecological niche. The article provided no evidence (beyond Richard’s quote) that this condition exists. It is worth noting, in fact, that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries does not consider the alligator species overpopulated. Rather, a fact sheet offered on their website describes the population as “stable.”
Furthermore, evidence suggest that alligators in Louisiana are not overpopulated. In addition to habitat destruction, Rosenblatt told us, telltale signs of overpopulation include animal starvation and negative population growth. Yet according to the Louisiana DWF (in a document linked by the Mic.com article), “Alligator populations in Louisiana increased consistently from 1970 to 1999, have remained stable/slightly increasing for the last 10 years, and currently remain at high levels.” High levels, here, by no means refers to the scientific concept of overpopulation, and is a reference to the fact that the species has recovered from near extinction levels in the 1960s.
By far the more problematic claim in the original story, however, was the notion that alligators are actively destroying wetland habitats. This article cited the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in a way that misleadingly suggested the research agency endorsed a theory that alligators were contributing to the reduction wetland area in Louisiana:
According to the United States Geological Survey, [the wetlands] are being lost at a rate of 75 square kilometers annually. In Des Allemands and other bayous like it, you add in the overpopulation of an apex predator into the equation and the effects are deeply felt.
The USGS, in that report, listed a number of factors that are contributing to the decline of wetlands, such as human impacts, land use changes, and rising sea level — but alligators were not mentioned even once. A 2013 study on the future prospects of Louisiana’s wetland ecosystems that summarized the main contributors to habitat loss similarly gave a snub to alligators. Rosenblatt told us he is wholly unaware of any research linking alligators to habitat destruction in Louisiana. “I’ve probably read about 95 percent of the existing scientific literature on alligator ecology,” he added.
An additional rationale provided for why hunting (and presumably eating) alligators would provide a net benefit to the ecosystem: that “too many alligators means too many fish and turtles being killed.” This assertion, Rosenblatt said, is based on a simplistic and outmoded view of the connection between ecosystems and apex predators. A 2011 paper in Biological Reviews argued that predators often play a vital role in maintaining complex ecosystems:
Top-order predators often have positive effects on biological diversity […] Their loss has been identified as a major factor contributing to the decline of biodiversity in both aquatic and terrestrial systems. Consequently, restoring and maintaining the ecological function of top predators is a critical global imperative.
Alligators in Louisiana, specifically, play an important role in regulating the the wetland ecosystem due to their predation on an invasive rodent known as nutria (introduced for fur trading in the 1930s). That species, unlike the alligator, has significantly degraded at least 100,000 acres of wetland in Louisiana. To reduce complexities of an ecosystem to “turtles and fish = good, alligators = bad” does a disservice to both ecological science and readers interested in understanding it.
Rosenblatt does agree that alligator hunting is “an important part of alligator management programs, and alligator meat is delicious,” but he pushes back against the rationale provided by the original article. “Advocating for hunting because gators are destroying marshes? There’s no evidence for that.” In fact, like the claim of overpopulation, there is evidence against it, Rosenblatt said:
The rate of wetland loss in Louisiana has been declining, despite the fact that Louisiana alligator populations have been stable or growing slowly.
The first version of this article reported on the opinion of an alligator chef without verifying the factual bases underlying his opinions. In truth, no evidence supports either the claim that Louisiana alligators are overpopulated or that their presence is contributing to a loss of wetland habitat. It is, perhaps, great press for Nathan Richard’s restaurant, but a fact-based, scientifically-valid investigation it is not.
We reached out to the writer of this piece for comment, but have not yet heard back.
Updated [24 January 2017]: Updated to reflect that Mic.com issued a correction to their original story.